photo courtesy of American Camp Association
Happy Hollow Children's Camp, Nashville, Indiana
I still remember the Excel spreadsheet my husband created when our son was in grade school. We were trying to patch together multiple summer-day-camp options that would be fun for him as well as provide childcare while we both worked. We talked with friends, pored over websites, and finally cobbled together a plan. What we didn’t have was great advice — like these tips from our experts. BEFORE YOU GO:
• Know your child.
“The age and interests of the child help to determine which type of camp experience will fit,” says Howard Batterman, owner and director of Sesame/Rockwood Camps and Rockwood Adventures Teen Travel Program.
“With very young children ages 4 to 5, the length of the day and the week is a consideration. Most day camps offer mini or full days with extended hours for working families before and after the regular camp hours,” adds Batterman, who also has worked with the American Camp Association (ACA) (acacamps.org). “With older children, you will be looking into either a traditionally based program (which often includes swimming, sports, arts-and outdoor-adventure activities, and instruction) or short-term specialty programs with an emphasis on a particular sport, theater, dance, or magic or even something like robotics or culinary arts,” he says.
• Ask around.
Of course, the web is a great source of information on local day camps. But word-of-mouth suggestions can be the best source of info. Parents from your child’s school, neighbors, and relatives are often happy to share their experiences. It’s even helpful to ask a favorite babysitter if he or she went to day camp or worked at one. Ask, “What did you like about the camp? What did you dislike? Would your child want to return to the same camp again in the future?” Some parents also poll their Facebook friends. As you ask around, start creating a short list of camps you want to consider.
• Schedule a visit and bring your questions.
If possible, “Schedule a time to visit, along with your child, and tour the facilities with the director,” suggests Batterman. Ask questions. Are lunch and snacks provided or do kids bring food from home? Is there care taken for children with food allergies? Is a nurse on staff? Is transportation provided to and from your home? If so, how? What is the staff-to-camper ratio? (This varies based on the age. For younger campers, Batterman recommends a 3:1 (camper-to-staff) ratio; for older campers, a 5:1 ratio.) How are children grouped? Is there a swim program? If so, what certifications do the people hold who are running that program? Have staff had extensive background checks and been fingerprinted? What type of training do they receive?
• Check out camp security.
What procedures are in place to sign-out a camper? At Batterman’s camps, for example, each family is mailed ID cards. Child-custody and parental restrictions should be strictly enforced, he notes. Also, staff should wear camp T-shirts or some other type of uniform, and photo ID on a lanyard, says Batterman. “This ensures that each staff member is identified,” he adds. “If a stranger is on camp property, they’re easy to spot.”
• Ask about visitation policies.
An open-visitation policy for parents is best. “This is important because it tells the parents that the camp has nothing to hide,” he says. “Parents should be able to stop by camp at their leisure to visit their child.” (Always be sure to check in upon your arrival, as the camp will need to keep track of all visitors for security reasons.)
• Check on accreditation.
Is the camp ACA accredited? The American Camp Association is the governing body of both day and residential camps. “Camps that are accredited must comply with more than 300 standards for the health, safety, and welfare of campers and employees,” says Batterman.
ONCE YOU DECIDE ON A CAMP.
Donna Schwartz, associate executive director of Siegel JCC day camps for children and teens in Wilmington, Delaware, has these suggestions:
• Pack wisely. You will likely receive a “what to bring to camp” list from the camp before your child’s first day. Will your child be carrying her stuff around with her all day at camp? If so, pack minimally required items, and considering having your child use a small backpack.
• Consider buying thrift clothes. For kids who will be attending more than just a day camp, you might consider buying some used shorts and T-shirts. That way, if items get soiled or lost, you won’t be out a nice garment.
• Keep food safe. Will your child’s lunch be refrigerated? If yes, pack it in a brown paper bag labeled with his name. If no, pack it in an insulated lunch box (also labeled) with an ice pack.
• Remember sunscreen. How much outdoor-time will your child get? It’s always a good idea to slather your kid with sunscreen before going to camp. If there’s a lot of swim and outdoor time, send more sunscreen along.
• Hold off on toys and electronics. Camp is about socializing, making new friends, and trying new activities. If you send along electronics (assuming these are even allowed at the camp), your child will be more isolated and focused on playing Angry Birds instead of enjoying camp activities. Plus, electronics can be easily lost at camp.
• Label everything. Your child inevitably will lose something. You are more likely to get an item back if it has his name on it.